What is drone delivery and how is it changing the pharmaceutical supply chain?

In this guide, we share expert insight on the future of drone delivery, discuss how the market landscape is developing and showcase the latest industry innovations in the field.

What is drone delivery?

A delivery drone is an autonomous vehicle, often an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which can be used to transport medicine throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain.

They are particularly useful in the last mile and in hard to reach regions, where poor infrastructure and high expense can limit patient access.

As Cathy Morrow Roberson of Logistics Trends and Insights put it to Supply Chain Brain, “drones have captured the imaginations of many logisticians. The uses for drones are expanding as more logistics providers test these devices in a number of ways”. 

In their submission to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Amazon went as far as to say that “one day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today”, predicting that drone technology will become a common aspect of the delivery landscape. 


How the industry is using drone delivery in the pharmaceutical supply chain

The last mile to the customer is often the most expensive and inefficient aspect of the pharmaceutical supply chain. Many believe that drones' have the potential to simultaneously reduce costs within the last mile and increase efficiency. This is how the industry is currently testing and piloting this technology across the globe.

Read more: What does the future of the cold chain hold?


Medical sample delivery with Matternet

U.S. based drone delivery company, Matternet, made early news in 2014 following their work with Doctors Without Borders to send patient samples from remote health centers to hospitals in Papau New Guinea.  

In 2016, they also partnered with Swiss Post to conduct drone delivery trials in Lugano, Switzerland, reducing transport time for laboratory samples between hospitals. They have worked with the Government of Malawi and UNICEF to deliver H.I.V tests. And they also partnered with supply chain specialists, LLamasoft, to complete 2,000 deliveries in Tanzania of blood supplies, vaccines and HIV medication. LLamasoft’s Regional Director, Sid Rupani, highlighted that to secure the safety and efficacy of valuable vaccines it is not always wise to hold them in a single health facility, where the risk of power outage and spoilage is high. It can increase operational efficiency by introducing small, more frequent deliveries, where drone delivery plays a major part. 

However, their latest partnership with UPS will test their drone delivery capability in the U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration will be overseeing WakeMed’s use of Matternet’s M2 quadcopters to deliver medical supplies, samples and specimens during daily revenue flights. In a statement, UPS said their partnership “represents a major milestone for unmanned aviation in the United States”. They believe the addition of drone transport will “provide an option for on-demand and same-day delivery, [offer] the ability to avoid roadway delays, increase medical delivery efficiency, lower costs and improve the patient experience with potentially life-saving benefits”.  

This on-going program will be used to evaluate how drones can be utilized to improve transport services at other hospitals and medical facilities across the U.S. It also represents a key development to enhance UPS’ Global Smart Logistics Network.


Disaster response innovation with Softbox, MSD and AT&T

Following consultation with UNICEF, MSD spearheaded a proof of concept trial with Softbox and AT&T. Using AT&T’s LTE-connected drone to transport Softbox’s thermal packaging system ‘Skypod’, the collective aimed to show how temperature-sensitive medicines could be transported using drones in disaster and emergency situations.

Brenda Colatrella, executive director of Corporate Responsibility at MSD said these drone test flights “give us hope that we will be able to provide a reliable supply of our medicines for disaster”. 

AT&T uses their IoT technology to track the drone and relay data to a web and mobile dashboard. While the Skypod monitors the internal and external temperature in near-real-time during transit. This allows all parties to monitor the temperature of medicines during transit to ensure successful delivery.

Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in August 2018, the technology was deployed for testing across Puerto Rico. With infrastructure collapse and delays caused by disasters, people depend on innovative ways to access vital medication. As Pablo Maestre, security lead for MSD in Puerto Rico, put it “this is about saving lives”. 

In a post on their innovation blog, AT&T said that this “could be a game-changer when time is of the essence to deliver vital medicines following a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis”.

Hear the full story of how this partnership began in the below interview recorded at the Temperature Controlled Logistics conference


Last mile delivery in emerging markets with Zipline

In 2016, Zipline, GAVI and UPS collaborated to establish a delivery-by-drone program in Rwanda

This was largely driven by the expense of stocking valuable medical products in these markets and the poor logistics infrastructure, which make drone delivery an attractive and cost-efficient choice for the market.

Necessary infrastructure, including launch and landing stations, were set up to delivery up to 150 emergency deliveries per day to 21 transfusing stations in the western region of the country. The initial focus of the project was the transportation of blood to clinics to address the needs of patients with postpartum haemorrhaging, which is a leading cause of death for pregnant women in the region.

Zipline have now delivered over 10,000 packages in Rwanda, running two distribution centers, with plans to scale to full emergency delivery across the country.

Zipline argue that their system’s speed makes it possible for them to maintain a “cold chain”. At the point of delivery, the drones do not land but instead drop small packages with simple paper parachutes from low altitudes. 

Read more: UPS' last mile innovations expand to vaccine supply


Airbus and International SOS collaborate on medical cargo drone delivery

Airbus recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with International SOS to develop and study the use of drone delivery for medical cargo and supplies. 

International SOS runs a MedSupply service to deliver medical supplies, specialist medical care and equipment in urban and remote locations in support of medical emergencies. The partnership will look to explore the use of drone delivery in these areas and in urban deliveries.

Dirk Hoke, Chief Executive Officer at Airbus Defence and Space believes the partnership will allow the company to use “our cutting-edge technology to potential save lives and transform the medical and travel security industry”.

Arnaud Vaissié, CEO and co-founder of International SOS hopes that “bringing together the Airbus expertise in securing aerial deliveries and our global infrastructure assisting clients worldwide, is a clear move towards a greater efficiency”. 


Walmart’s warehouse inventory management

MIT have developed a system of small drones that can fly around a warehouse to scan inventory using bar codes and RFID tags. This technology can greatly reduce the counting workload for humans in large distribution centers and could be a vital tracking tool to prevent counterfeiting or warehouse losses.

Walmart has tested similar technology as part of its Emerging Sciences and Technology group, which focuses on how new technology can improve the efficiency of their supply chain.

Shekar Natarajan, the vice president of last mile and emerging science, said that the fleet of drones can catalog in as little as a day what currently takes employees around a month.

The Walmart drones can each scan a volume of inventory in one hour that would otherwise require 50 humans, representing a significant resource and cost saving for the company, that could be easily replicated to other enterprises struggling with warehouse management. 


John Hopkins' research into cold chain drone delivery

John Hopkin’s Bayview Medical Center has spent 18 months researching and testing refrigeration on drones. This has led to successful drone delivery tests where no biologic change was shown in blood packed in refrigerated coolers. Despite strict take-off weight limits, the team found that the transport drones can safely deliver large bags of red blood cells, blood plasma or paltelets using coolers to constantly control temperature. The trial flights lasted roughly 30  minutes and covered 8-12 miles at 100 meters above ground.

As director, Dr. Timothy Amukele, put it “if the blood somehow was changed or destroyed in transport, then non of it matter”. Being able to maintain temperature and secure the efficacy and safety of products is a key factor for drone delivery in the pharmaceutical supply chain.

The John Hopkins team believe that these findings add to the evidence that “remotely piloted drones are an effective, safe and timely way to get blood products to remote accident or natural catastrophe sites, or other time-sensitive destinations”. 

The team are planning larger studies across the U.S. and overseas with hopes to test active forms of cooling during drone delivery.


Boeing’s 500 pound cargo drone

Boeing have recently announced their development of a drone which can carry up to 500 pounds of cargo. The team said that this “prototype aims to further develop and mature the build blocks of autonomy and electric propulsion”. Steve Nordlund, Boreing HorizonX vice president said that “the safe integration of unmanned aerial systems is vital to unlocking their full potential”.

Read more: How NASA is supporting commercial drone delivery through urban traffic management trial


Pharma Logistic IQ Insight

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of trials and project deployments, but we’ve yet to see a pharmaceutical company fully integrate drones within their supply chain.

As the body of research grows, more data is collected and drone delivery companies develop further expertise, we expect adoption to progress at a rapid pace, particularly in disaster response.

However, for the market to progress, further guidance, infrastructure and support are needed from regulatory bodies and aviation authorities.  

The temperature controlled logistics markets are often cautious to new technology, with the value of their products and the need to protect patient safety so high. But as supply chains become more dynamic and greater effort is given to ensure the supply chain can withstand disasters and reach rural patients, we expect more companies to invest in drone delivery for their supply chain.